Golf found itself at Bethpage Black, that monster of a public course on Long Island, New York, for the PGA Championship in May, and not August, its date for decades. The schedule change was made largely in order to avoid complications now that golf was in the Olympic Games.
And as things unfolded, Brooks Koepka’s best-laid plans were un-laid coming out of the starting gate. He’d said there was a key to handling Bethpage Black. “Take advantage of the par-fives,” he said — meaning birdie them, of course — “and just try to hang on, on the rest of them.” But in the first round, he merely parred both, Nos. 4 and 13.
Not that the oversight ruined his first round. He did birdie his first hole, No. 10, with a 40-foot putt, and his last from nearly 35, and between these bookend birdies was nary a bogey, and it all added up to a seven-under 63 and a one-stroke lead.
As to the par-fives: At the 13th, Koepka drove into a fairway bunker and. ended up two-putting from 12 feet, and at No. 4, he drove into the native area, then caught the rough twice getting home.
“That was one of the best rounds I’ve played, probably, as a professional,” said Koepka, 29, who needed just 25 putts. “This golf course is brutal.” He’d set the record and also became the first player to shoot a 63 in the same major twice. In winning the 2018 PGA at Bellerive, he shot 63 in the second round, where fully 47 players broke par in the first round. This time, only 16 broke par, the fewest for the opening round of a PGA since 2008 at Oakland Hills.
For all of Koepka’s power — and power was invaluable on the nearly 7,500-yard course — his putter came in awfully handy. He also birdied from 13, 16 and 19 feet. And he came within a whisker of going absurdly low, missing birdies from seven feet at No. 11 and eight at No. 2.
Danny Lee, 28, a Korean-born New Zealander living in Dallas and winner of the 2015 Greenbrier Classic, was a stroke behind with a 64, his best start ever in a major. He was encouraged, but as a shorter hitter at Bethpage, he was sobered by reality. “I wasn’t surprised when Brooks shot seven unde this morning,” he said. “When you’re hitting driver, pitching wedge every hole…”
Despite Koepka’s fireworks, all eyes were on Tiger Woods, just five weeks after his near-miracle comeback victory in the Masters. He had won four PGAs. Was a fifth in the offing?
It certainly didn’t look that way. Woods had a remarkable front nine — in a way. He started at the 10th with a double bogey when he drove into the rough, had to hack out, wedged over the green and pitched on well past the flag. He birdied the 15th with a 15-foot putt, then double-bogeyed the par-three 17th after a tee shot into a bunker.
He was three over through the turn, then quickly got to one under with birdies at his 10th and 11th and an eagle at his 12th (No. 4) on a 31-foot putt. Then he bogeyed three of his last four, two of them on three-putts and the other on a bad chip shot at the par-three No. 8 for a two-over 72. Said Woods: “I felt like it’s not that hard to make bogeys out here, but it’s hard to make birdies.”
The new-old Woods had the fans stirring.
”It was great that Tiger won at Augusta,” Koepka said. “Everyone’s going to be cheering for him, and it’s going to be loud, especially if he makes a putt. You’ve just got to keep battling.”
Koepka’s 63 drew some interesting reactions from players looking at a tough job ahead. Said Phil Mickelson, after a 69: “You just have to stay in the present.
Because if you start chasing a score like that, it won’t come to you, and you’ll end up making big mistakes.” Said Rory McIlroy, after his one-birdie 72: “It gives me hope. It gives me hope I can go out tomorrow and shoot a low one.”
“It’s one day,” said Rickie Fowler, who shot 69. “The tournament cannot be won on Thursday and Friday.”
“Come Sunday,” came the question, “how close do you think you have to be to Brooks to have a reasonable chance?” Said Fowler: “What makes you think he’s going to be leading? I would say there’s no lead really safe here.”
The leaderboard carried a name not generally familiar — Mike Lorenzo-Vera, of France. His résumé included one win on the European Challenge Tour and one playoff loss on the European Tour, and now a 68 in the PGA.
“If I continue playing like that,” Lorenzo-Vera said, “I’m going to sleep less and less, shake more and more. Yeah, I know what’s waiting me the few days coming. First of all, I’m going to have a good rest, speak to my psychologist.”
First-round leaders: Brooks Koepka 63, Danny Lee 64, Tommy Fleetwood 67, Mike Lorenzo-Vera 68, Chez Reavie 68, Luke List 68, Sung Kang 68, Pat Perez 68.